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History of the VFW

The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States traces its beginnings to the end of the 19th century. In 1899, veterans of the Spanish American War and later the Philippine Insurrection established local organizations to bring awareness to the rights and benefits of their service, and to lobby for veterans pensions and better medical care.

The American Veterans of Foreign Service was founded in Columbus, Ohio. In Denver, a group of veterans established the Colorado Society, Army of the Philippines. In 1901, Philippine veterans in two Pennsylvania cities – Pittsburgh and Altoona – founded the Philippine War Veterans. The following year, veterans in Philadelphia established the American Veterans of the Philippine and China Wars. In 1903, the three Pennsylvania groups merged into one organization, which would become the American Veterans of Foreign Service, joining with the Ohio organization in 1905.

In 1913, the Colorado and Pennsylvania organizations combined into one, which became the Army of the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Later that year, it received its present-day name of Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. The name was formally adopted at the organization’s encampment in Pittsburgh in 1914.

A Congressional charter on May 28, 1936 incorporated the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.

In 1915, membership stood at about 5,000. By 1936, it was 200,000. Today, membership is approaching two million, with more than 9000 posts worldwide.

Contributions made by the VFW are massive:

  • Lobbying for the GI Bill of Rights
  • Donating millions for Vietnam, Korean, World War II and Women in the Service Memorials
  • Establishment of the Veterans Administration and improving care at VA medical centers
  • Leading development of the national cemetery system
  • Fighting for compensation for Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome
  • Encouraged elevation of the Veterans Administration to a presidential cabinet-level position
  • Protecting and enhancing the VA budget
  • Raising millions to provide hundreds of thousands of care packages to Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom troops
  • Providing thousands of hours of time and millions of dollars worth of supplies to aid those affected by Hurricane Katrina
  • Convincing Congress to declare the Star Spangled Banner the national anthem
  • Establishing annual scholarships worth more than $2.5 million to college-bound students
  • Made Veterans Day a national holiday
  • Annually providing almost 15 million hours of volunteer efforts to our local communities

The VFW is always there, always ready, and always fulfilling its mission to “honor the dead by helping the living.” 


Important Moments in VFW History:

1899: Various organizations of Spanish-American war veterans forms

1914: Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW) forms from a merger of these groups

1916: First national essay contest started. This would be the forerunner of today’s Patriot’s Pen and Voice of Democracy programs, essay and presentation contests, respectively, that reaffirm the value of patriotism to middle- and high-school students

1921: 60,000 members

          Female WWI vets qualify for membership. Unfortunately, the organization takes a step backwards by not recognizing the contributions of female and subsequent generations of female veterans. In 1978, VFW righted this wrong. Today, female veterans of all generations play a vital role within the organization.

          First Americanization Day held April 27. Designed by the VFW as a response to fears of Communist influence on Labor Day, Americanization Day—known now as Loyalty Day—would become a legal holiday in 1958.

1922: VFW begins distributing Buddy Poppies. Inspired by Colonel John McCrae’s 1915 poem, “In Flanders Field,” the red poppies are a symbol of the sacrifices that military service members have made for freedom. Over one billion Buddy Poppies have since been distributed. Proceeds from Buddy Poppies—assembled by disabled vets—go to VFW Post Relief Funds for distribution to disabled veterans, the VFW National Home or similar facilities dedicated to the care of veterans, as well as memorials to those individuals who continue to lay down their lives on behalf of this country and its freedoms.

1929-30: VFW members lead an expedition to recover US remains in northern Russia. The casualties, killed in the fighting of the Bolshevik Revolution that occurred after World War I, had been part of a 5000-strong American force sent to support Russian Imperial forces. The expedition recovered remains of 86 of reported 127 service members left buried in foreign soil. This event would become the template for a VFW mission that continues to this day: finding and bringing home our comrades-in-arms by engaging our former enemies.

1930: VFW National Headquarters occupies its current building in Kansas City, MO. The area was chosen for its geographic centrality.

1932: VFW condemns the actions of the US government for its violent response to the Bonus Expeditionary Force—a group of some 20,000 veterans and their families seeking bonuses for their World War I service. The BEF gathered in Washington, DC, starting on Memorial Day, May 30. Anxious to see legislation passed to support the awarding of bonuses, the gathering remained mostly peaceful with the support of friends in the local police force, Congress, and veteran organizations. By late July, however, the situation had changed. Minor skirmishes with police and continuing failures to pass legislation resulted in a tense atmosphere. On July 28, US military forces drove the BEF from DC with light tanks, tear gas, and the flats of sabers. This would lead the VFW into a long-term struggle to ensure that veterans receive the compensation they have earned through their service.

1937: VFW HQ appropriates $10,000 for victims of Ohio River Valley floods. The mission of supporting our communities in times of crisis continues to this day. In 2005, over $ 400,000 was given to Katrina disaster relief alone.

1944: VFW puts forth the first education bill to Congress from a veterans organization. This bill would become the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more popularly known as the GI Bill. Passage was made possible through a coalition of veteran organizations and dedicated congressman who worked against those claiming that it was an unnecessary expense. By July 25, 1956, 2,232,000 World War II veterans had enrolled using the GI Bill. The VFW would be at the forefront of each subsequent GI Bill.

1946: VFW reaches 1,544,444 members.

1950: Life membership program is instituted. Members can now make a one-time payment. In 2008, life member installment pay plans are instituted to make the cost more affordable. Thanks to automatic billing, members need no longer worry about dues invoices in the mail.

1958: VFW’s national encampments are now designated national conventions.

1968: Tet Aggression Relief Project raises $85,000 for South Vietnamese civilians and disabled veterans.

1981: VFW wins first-ever case for PTSD disability compensation.

1982: VFW contributes $300,000 to Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

1984: VFW has over 2 million members.

          First Vietnam Veteran becomes VFW Commander-in-Chief (National Commander).

          VFW contributes $70,000 to Vietnam Women’s Memorial.

          Montgomery GI Bill is enacted.

1990: VFW contributes first installment of $650,000 to Korean War Memorial.

1991: Operation Hometown sends care packages to more than 100,000 service members in Desert Shield/Storm.

1995: VFW Posts donate $40,000 to victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.

1996: Operation Uplink begins distributing phone cards to deployed and hospitalized service members. This program would become a cornerstone of National Military Services’ programs to continue supporting America’s service members deployed around the world.

1998: Voice of Democracy reaches $2.6 million in college scholarships.

2008: 21st Century GI Bill becomes law. This important achievement for today’s veterans was the culmination of a 10 year effort by the VFW.